No sooner had the Woodward era officially ended on Friday than a five-strong search committee was created to find his successor as England coach. That the group, including Rugby Football Union chief executive Francis Baron, wants to move quickly looks like good news for acting coach Andy Robinson, the one certain contender.
Robinson has been placed in charge for the November Test matches against Canada, Australia and South Africa. But much more than organisational convenience points to Robinson getting the permanent appointment expected before those games are played.
He has the firmly expressed support of Sir Clive Woodward, while Baron has used every opportunity since Robinson was appointed acting coach on Thursday to talk about his credibility as a candidate. Baron also confirmed that the RFU had detailed succession plans and it must be assumed that a high-profile deputy like Robinson has always been seen as the likeliest successor.
Robinson's hopes have been further boosted by disclaimers from two of the most plausible alternatives Nigel Melville of Gloucester and Newcastle's Rob Andrew. Against this, the vacancy has occurred at least three years sooner than anticipated for the 40-year-old. And the search group would be remiss if they did not look seriously at a number of candidates before making their decision. The objection to appointing deputies is that they can simply represent more of the same, a mini-me of the previous boss without his leadership skills or strategic sense. Woodward counters: “Andy has his own ideas and his own thoughts on who he might bring in.”
He has already been a successful chief coach, winning the Heineken Cup with Bath in 1998. No other Englishman matches his international experience, not only with England but as assistant to Graham Henry with the 2001 British Lions.
Like any other successor, he will have to deal with the club v country conflict that Woodward yesterday blamed for his departure. He will certainly feel, like Woodward that he should have as much control as possible over England players and be aware of conflicts of interest with clubs. Pointing to the narrow margin between success and failure, Woodward argued that compromise was not an option. Few players or coaches have been called “uncompromising” more frequently than Robinson, but it may be that his deeper roots in the English club game will make him both more sympathetic to, and persuasive with, the clubs.
* Woodward has confirmed that he will not be taking up any other full-time employment before he coaches the Lions next summer, although he will be taking a Football Association coaching course presumably preparing him for a move into football after the Lions tour.